Reporting from New York —
Rarely do theatrical impresarios claim Vanna White as their personal Thalia, the muse of comedy. The exception? Playwright, director and actor Eugene Pack, creator of "Celebrity Autobiography: In Their Own Words."
Inspired by White's literary debut, Pack's evening of by-the-book recitations from famous folks' kiss-and-tell tales returns to Los Angeles, where, 10 years ago, it was conceived. It opens Monday at the Edye Second Space theater in the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center.
It all began when Pack came across "Vanna Speaks," the 1987 memoir by the head-turning letter-turner on TV's "Wheel of Fortune," in a Los Angeles bookstore. He was fascinated by the exacting details she provided about the simple job of flipping the panels on a giant puzzle.
"It jumped out at me that it could be theatrical and offbeat and really funny if it was read as a monologue in front of an audience," Pack says.
That simple central conceit of "Celebrity Autobiography" has been comic gold. Pack and his wife and costar, Dayle Reyfel, keep it fresh — and topical — by gleaning unintentionally funny first-person prose selections from some 300 authors, including Tiger Woods and Britney Spears. Raising stunt casting to a new high, the show's ever-changing, consistently oddball pairings — comedian Mario Cantone taking on dethroned Miss California USA Carrie Prejean's "Still Standing," gag writer Bruce Vilanch reading Star Jones, "The View's" Sherri Shepherd as Elizabeth Taylor — have transformed what might otherwise be a parlor game into a cult hit.
In its first five years of L.A. performances, "Celebrity Autobiography" built such a devoted following that it was documented in a 2005 special for Bravo. Three years ago, Pack took it to an off-Broadway cabaret-style theater in New York, where it won a 2009 Drama Desk award for unique theatrical experience and still plays to packed houses.
Now, as amateurs try to re-create Pack's conceit in YouTube videos, the show is going global. This summer, there are plans to present it with various casts in New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Miami, Cleveland and Washington, D.C., and London's West End, and it will headline the Edinburgh Comedy Festival. "Celebrity Autobiography" is also reestablishing a Los Angeles residency with two shows per night, once a month through 2011 at the Edye.
"We are at the epicenter of celebrity culture, so what better place to do it?" asks the theater's artistic director, Dale Franzen, who has added a stage and cocktail bar to the performance space for the show. "Everyone needs a good laugh right now."
Fred Willard, one of the first actors to join the "Celebrity Autobiography" troupe, which now has over 70 members, says the challenge of the show is "to read the words with the right inflection without appearing cartoonish." Willard performs in Monday's show with Brooke Shields, Rita Wilson and Florence Henderson and clearly relishes the gig.
"Where else can I be Mr. T, Justin Timberlake and Burt Reynolds all in the same night?" Willard asks.
Though it descends from radio plays, two-handers and spoken-word performances, "Celebrity Autobiography" is completely innovative, says Shields, who plays Ivana Trump and Loni Anderson.
"It can't be accused of being 'The Vagina Monologues' or 'Love Letters' because the cast and the script is always changing," she says. "There is not one moment of rehearsal. You show up and they hand you a book with dog-eared pages. And everyone else is in the same boat."
At a recent New York performance, Pack played Capt. Stubing to a crew including Matthew Broderick, Dick Cavett, Kristen Johnston and comedy writer Alan Zweibel. Taking his turns at the microphone, Pack exhibited a mastery of the form, playing a tormented Eddie Fisher in a mash-up he created from interwoven portions of bios by Fisher, Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor. And with a lascivious grin, he delivered once-innocent lines from Tiger Woods' "How I Play Golf" as double-entendres. The words "stroke" and "my putter" have never sounded more suggestive.
All the juiciest celebrity sagas turn on sexual revelations and that night, the wickedly deadpan Reyfel brought the house down with Marilu Henner's randy recollections about various body parts and the allure of "Taxi" costar Danny DeVito.
"The material is guaranteed to make people laugh," she says. "Nobody can believe people write these things down on paper."
Zweibel says audiences — and the performers themselves, who often can't keep a straight face — also yuck it up over the passages that reveal how self-involved the authors are.
"I mean, does Joan Lunden really think we care what order she puts her clothes on in the morning?" he asks.